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Shelby County Schools plans to restructure alternative school programs

J. Zubrzycki

Shelby County Schools is considering cutting dozens of staff members and nearly half of the locations from its alternative school program.

The proposed restructuring of the program would reduce the number of alternative school locations from 17 to 9, according to Stefani Everson, a spokeswoman for the district. The aim would be to “create a comprehensive K-12 learning environment with more robust academic course offerings next school year,” she said in an email.

The changes suggests that Shelby County is radically rethinking the way it serves some of the county’s neediest students. Most students in alternative schools have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. Many are overage for their grade and at high risk of dropping out.

Some 1,900 students attend the district’s alternative programs, though that number fluctuates. The district has approximately 140,000 students, and anticipates having 117,000 next year.

The district’s 2014-15 budget proposes some $7 million to be spent on alternative schools, down from $9.5 million this year.

The district’s overall budget is being cut by $103 million, from $1.2 billion to $961.3 million, largely to reflect students projected to attend new municipal school districts in the Memphis suburbs or the state-run ASD. But the changes to the alternative schools program would be mostly within the city of Memphis.

Most of the projected cuts in the alternative program would affect staff: Seven alternative education specialists, one assistant principal, 26 classroom teachers, eight counselors, one case worker, and four social workers would have their jobs cut, while four alternative education specialist positions will be added, according to the district’s initial budget.

The alternative school program’s proposed 2014-15 goal is to develop four K-8 “Success Schools,” and to increase their capacity from 905 to 1000 students. The current program includes four elementary school programs and a number of 6-12 schools.

The district aims to reduce the number of expelled students who do not attend alternative school, and to help students transition from alternative schools back to traditional schools.

District spokeswoman Stefani Everson said in an email that the that the changes were not yet final. She said staff had been informed of the changes.

The cuts come as other public education entities in the city plan to expand their alternative school offerings. The state-run Achievement School District is recruiting alternative school providers and has contracted with Pathways In Education to serve over-age students or students who have been expelled or suspended from its schools. Pathways also allows adults or those who have dropped out of school to return to get their diploma.

And former Memphis mayor and schools superintendent Willie Herenton has established a network of charter schools focused on at serving at-risk students.

The district is slightly increasing the amount of money it is spending on its adolescent parenting program, which also target a group of students at high risk of dropping out of school. Spending on that program will increase from $1.2 million to $1.3 million.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II told the district’s board he is hoping to increase the district’s graduation rate dramatically by 2025.

Shelby County Schools’ director of alternative schools could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.

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